Harvesting Corn, One Ear at a Time

The day the cavalry arrived

picking corn by hand

Harvesting corn by hand was a tedious job.

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Is it possible that tens of millions of ears hanging from Iowa cornstalks were once taken, one at a time, by hand?

Our farm was too small for half-mile rows. It was sobering enough to stand in the chilly frostiness of a November morning and look down a quarter-mile row.

We had already been up at dawn, done the chores, milked the cows, separated the milk and had a good breakfast. We had harnessed the teams, hitched them to the wagons and put several extra pairs of shucking gloves into a box nailed on the side of the wagon.

We wore those gloves until they were rags. They were made with a thumb on each side so both sides could wear out evenly. When they became so tattered that the rough corn kernels scraped our hands to bleeding, we turned them over and used the other thumb.

On special days, our mother put a red apple or two among the gloves. Waiting for the treat of a cold, crisp apple at the end of two rows helped make the ears fly. With our patient team plodding down the road to the field, we stood inside a wagon – a high bang board to our right. Ears of corn, thrown against the bang board, fell down into the wagon.

Kids often got the old, battered wagons with sheets of tin nailed on the floor to cover weak boards and more coffee-can lids or other tin scraps tacked over holes in the bang board. Some of the tin might be hanging in shreds from the long hammering of a stream of ears.

Before hybrid corn was fully developed, much of the corn was down – frozen in snow that had fallen days before. We were wet-chilled, dragging gobs of mud along on our boots, pulling stalks out of low drifts, digging for the snowy ears.

It was a long, long day, but all across the hills, others were doing the same. The steady thunk, thunk of wet ears hitting bang boards sounded in Iowa fields until it was too dark to find the ears or hit the wagon.

I’ll never be sorry for having picked corn by hand in Iowa. To be honest, in all my feelings about work, however, I must remember one more incident: It was a thrilling, exciting moment, very much like watching the people of the wagon train fighting for their lives in the old cowboy-and-Indian movies.

In those films, just as hope was slowly dying that anyone would survive, a bugler came galloping with the blue-coated cavalry to the rescue.
One sharp November day, when cold gusts were shaking the high bang boards, my brother and I turned our wagons into the field to head south into the wind. As we picked those first wet ears, a rustling, crackling sound of breaking cornstalks came toward us. We climbed up on our wagons to look.

It was our dad, driving his familiar John Deere but pulling a used Wood Brothers 1-row cornpicker, with a yellow stream of ears flying out the back into a wagon.

I couldn’t hear a bugle or see a blue coat except my worn ragged denim, but my brother and I looked at each other and smiled. Salvation was coming down the row, no doubt about that. FC

© 2001 Good Old Days magazine, published by House of White Birches; reprinted with permission.

Dale Geise is a retired educator who grew up on a farm near Underwood in southwest Iowa. Contact him at 1051 X Ave., Boone, IA 50036; (515) 292-5533; carolgei5@aol.com.